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Manchester United Centerback Transfer Target Analysis: Dayot Upamecano vs. Kalidou Koulibaly vs. Jonathan Tah

We look at three rumored centerback targets and assess their fit for United

RB Leipzig - Tottenham Hotspur Photo by Jan Woitas/picture alliance via Getty Images

Continuing our statistical analysis of transfer targets series we started last month, today we’ll be looking at potential centerbacks. As always, data and statistics are not a replacement for good old-fashioned scouting. They offer you an extra tool to capture something that your eyes might miss, but they have to work in conjunction with other tools. While data is the lead analysis point here, videos and matches have been studied on each of these players.

It’s no secret that Manchester United are in the market for a new centerback this summer. But what kind of centerback? Do United plan to spend big and get someone who walks into the first team alongside Harry Maguire? Or are they looking for a young player who can push the likes of Victor Lindelöf and Axel Tuanzebe and eventually overtake them?

Let’s start by assessing what they have. United are very good defensively, with room for improvement. They’ve conceded the fourth fewest shots and have the fifth lowest xG Against in the league. Their 0.10 xG/shot against is second best behind Wolves’ 0.09.

They’re also a team that likes to play out from the back, making the ability to play with the ball at your feet crucial for defenders in this team. Solskjaer’s preference for Lindelöf, and his jettisoning of the good-aerially-but-weak-passing Chris Smalling is a clear sign that he prioritizes the ability to play the ball over aerial prowess in his centerbacks.

Harry Maguire is United’s clear number one centerback. Eric Bailly is probably the second best, but he’s played fewer Premier League minutes in the last three years combined than he did in his first season at the club. The best ability is availability, and Bailly’s frequent lack of availability means he can’t be relied upon to be first choice.

Behind those two there’s Victor Lindelöf and the young Axel Tuanzebe. Tuanzebe should have been pushing for Lindelöf’s place this season, but he too has been often sidelined by injuries this year. Phil Jones also gets paid by United.

Lindelöf has played pretty well this season, with one glaring weakness. He’s terrible in the air. The fact that he ranks near the top of the league in aerial wins per game, but much lower in aerial win percentage, just shows you how often he’s targeted.

And while United have been a bit susceptible in the air overall this season, especially on set pieces, only two of those have come from Lindelöf getting beat. Most of Lindelöf’s duels occur higher up the field, as opponents will put their big striker on him and play long balls as they try to transition from defense to attack.

United are actually really good at hiding this weakness — they’ve allowed the second fewest completed crosses in the league.

They’ve also allowed the fourth fewest crosses in general.

These numbers don’t differentiate between high crosses or low crosses so it’s hard to draw any definitive conclusions from this (perhaps the low crosses all get blocked but high ones get through at a disproportional rate). Additionally, when Nemanja Matić — United’s only true defensive midfielder — plays, United actually concede more crosses per game, suggesting that maybe when he’s not playing teams just attack right up the middle and don’t need to cross as much. Maybe.

With that quick assessment of what United have, you can now decide what they need.

Disclaimer: Centerbacks are a particularly tough group to analyze from a statistical standpoint because their stats are so closely tied to the tactical style that they’re asked to play. As a result, centerback radars are more useful for profiling (a full primer on the stats in these radars and the parameters can be found here).

Dayot Upamecano - RB Leipzig

The 21-year-old has been looking to leave Leipzig all season and reportedly has a release clause similar to Timo Werner’s (in the region of £51-£54 million). Upamecado’s agent seemed skeptical of the chances a move last month due to COVID-19, but Timo Werner’s transfer backs up Leipzig’s managing director’s comments from May about Leipzig needing the money from player sales.

Upamecano is a pretty aggressive centerback. He makes a lot of tackles and a lot of pressures, leaving himself to be potentially exposed by tricky dribblers. He’ll need to stay home a bit more in England, but at 21 years old that’s something he’ll easily learn and develop with a little bit of time.

If United are looking to improve their aerial ability, his aerial win percent (65.06%) isn’t what you’d like to see, however last season he won 80.1% of his aerial duels suggesting the talent is there.

Where Upamercano excels is on the ball. He’s extremely composed, plays line breaking passes, and adds an extra element to the attack. He has exactly the kind of on-ball skills that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is looking for in his defenders.

Upamecado’s age is exactly the profile United are looking for as well. At 21 he wouldn’t be expected to walk straight into the starting XI. This will give him a chance to settle in to England and English football, while also creating competition with Axel Tuanzebe. Within a year Upamecano would have a first team spot, but don’t be shocked if Lindelöf felt him breathing down his neck sooner than that.

Kalidou Koulibaly - Napoli

Koulibaly confuses me. He’s been the subject of £100 million rumors for three or four years now and yet he’s still at Napoli. Perhaps this is the year United are serious about him because reports are claiming the club has quietly made a £71 million bid for the defender, and I have to ask, why?

By now, everyone knows Koulibaly’s quality, and the stats back up exactly what we think. He ticks a lot of boxes as he’s both very good defensively and good on the ball. There are just two things that concern me about him.

That 4.39 tackles/game (adjusted for possession) is a fantastic number, but along with it comes 3.26 fouls per game. The last thing United need is to concede more set pieces near their own goal, even if Koulibaly does make them better at defending them. Koulibaly’s erraticism gets him into trouble. In all competitions Koulibaly has been cautioned 89 times and sent off five — that’s 0.28 bookings per 90. That’s just shy of Eric Bailly’s 0.32 bookings per 90. How much use are you if you’re constantly at risk for suspension?

The bigger concern is Koulibaly’s age. He turns 29 this month. At £71 million he’d have to walk into the starting XI, but is that what you want for a defender who will quickly be on the wrong side of 30 and will begin losing a step? For a team whose defenders are already criticized for being a step off the pace, do you really want to add one that’ll be slowing down?

Along with age comes injuries. Koulibaly has missed 30 percent of Napoli’s season this year due to injury. He hasn’t been injury prone over the history of his career, but when a player starts getting injuries as they get older, United probably don’t want to take that chance.

If Koulibaly was the final piece between United being a title contender and favorites to win the league and Champions League next year, I’d be all for it. But that’s not where they are, so why spend so much on someone entering the backside of their career?

Jonathan Tah - Bayer Leverkusen

United were linked with Tah when José Mourinho was manager, but those rumors seem to have completely gone away under Solskjaer. Given both their transfer histories, I’d typically discount someone Mourinho wanted and instead back Solskjaer’s choices, but Tah is the exception.

Back in February BILD reported that Tah has a €40 million release clause, but other reports claim that it expires in June, so United would have to move quickly — making this one highly unlikely.

That’s a shame because Tah checks all the boxes. He’s good on the ball, he’s physical, he has a good presence in the box, and he’s good in the air. He’s a little susceptible to attackers dribbling by him (42.31%) but no one’s perfect.

At 24 years old Tah could be eased in to English football, but would also ready to step straight into the starting XI if needed. At the very least, he’ll bring depth and provide tremendous competition to both Lindelöf and Tuanzebe. Given their ages, the four of them (including Maguire) could be a nice long-term defensive unit for United.

United spent big money on their back line last summer and it has already paid dividends. They aren’t in a situation where they need to spend big at centerback again this year for someone who will necessarily be slotted straight into the starting XI. Rather, that money should be allocated towards securing more attacking talent and depth.

Victor Lindelöf isn’t as much of a problem as he’s made out to be. You can even win the league with Lindelöf being one of your centerbacks, if the team is able to compensate for his obvious flaws. As such, United don’t need to prioritize replacing him right now. What they need is depth (how many times have Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo had to play this year?), and someone with the potential to replace Lindelöf at some point in the next year.

Conclusion: I’d be fine with Tah, but United should go for Upamecano.